The measure of a truly inclusive rock biog is a reader’s capacity to enjoy the book regardless of their fondness for the musician in question’s audio output.
Similarly, whether or not you enjoy his music, Elvis Costello has always come across as a thoughtful, likeable chap. It naturally follows, therefore, that this well-written autobiography, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, is a product of his pen alone, with no ghost author in sight.
The music of the man born Declan Patrick MacManus has never seemed to quite fit into any one scene, so it’s also fitting that his memoir has a nonconformist sheen, dispensing with a chronological account in favour of carefree skipping between the years.
Regularly flicking back to a childhood spent in London and Liverpool, with a musical father plying his trade in popular big band the Joe Loss Orchestra, there are plenty of personal revelations, from his dad’s infidelities to the death of a childhood friend, and a short portrait of his flawed grandfather.
Costello’s writing style brims with wit and self-awareness, containing plenty of self-deprecating passages such as: “I was born in the same hospital in which Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. I apologise in advance that I have not been the same boon to mankind.”
For casual observers, it’s interesting to hear the origins of hits such as Oliver’s Army (a trip to Northern Ireland during The Troubles), and how his band, The Attractions, came together.
He talks plainly and openly about his lyrical inspirations, which were often significantly more menial than the cleverly clipped poetry they catalysed.
Clocking in at more than 650 pages, this is no light poolside read. A decent portion of the word count is devoted to Costello’s adulation of The Beatles, and while his detailing of encounters with Paul McCartney is a little fawning, his enthusiasm shines through brightly – he paints himself as a fan who became a musician, eagerly snapping up records throughout his childhood whenever money allowed.
This is a refreshing change in a medium where others often prefer to haughtily ignore their influences in favour of stoking the fires of their own mystique.
The Fab Four anecdotes include one about a concert at the White House to celebrate McCartney’s career – Barack Obama deals a cheeky zinger to Costello, who accidentally leaves his guitar in the president’s residence.
Prior Stateside success also leads to encounters with American music legends including Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond (the latter is given a particularly terse dose of British humour from one of Costello’s touring party).
On the other side of the Atlantic, we’re led into the chaotic days of late-1970s punk, including dialogue with The Sex Pistols and The Clash, via a publicity stunt that ends up in an afternoon in prison.
The only truly uncomfortable incident among a largely jovial journey is Costello’s most shameful career low – an episode of drunken racism in the seemingly unremarkable surrounds of Columbus, Ohio. He’s fairly candid about how a row with one of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young got out of hand and just about redeems his age-old “but I’m not a racist” protestations with the apologetic words “there are no excuses”.
The second half of the book drags a touch, and many of his latter-day tales from the road are actually less engaging than the intimate vignettes of his younger years and family life.
Costello comes across more like a sinning choirboy than a real hell-raiser – he’s not quite rock ’n’ roll enough for his exploits in excess to sound truly dangerous.
You won’t be left anticipating a second volume of Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, then, not least because the book is thoroughly exhaustive – but as a stand-alone read, it’s an entertaining portrait of one of rock’s square pegs, who somehow smuggled himself into its inner circles.